SmartMusic Q&A with National Jazz Festival

national jazz fest q&a

National Jazz Festival is an annual jazz festival inspiring high school and middle school musicians to take jazz to the next level through education, collaboration and celebration. This May, we are proud to partner with the National Jazz Festival for their festival taking place on May 22, 2021. 

Learn more about the National Jazz Festival, how you and your students can get involved, and how they’re changing the festival game by incorporating SmartMusic for two of the categories and in turn, allowing free access to SmartMusic for all of their participating teachers and students through June 30, 2021.

1. Tell us, how did the National Jazz Festival get its start?

We established the National Jazz Festival soon after the Berklee College of Music’s 2019 announcement that they were cancelling their annual high school jazz competition. Members of our executive staff were present that evening and witnessed the students’ reactions. They were devastated by the loss of this outlet to showcase their talents. This compelled us to establish a new home for these young musicians. At that point, we determined to not only fill the void but to expand on the concept of a high school jazz festival.

Jumping in feet first, we scheduled our first festival for February 15, 2020, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. We started by fostering relationships with the Philadelphia jazz community and reached out to the music industry for support. We signed up schools, universities, vendors, judges, guest ensembles, clinicians! Thanks to all our volunteers, donors, and a grant from the Waterman II Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, the inaugural festival was a success. 1,200 middle and high school musicians attended, as well as band directors, clinicians, adjudicators, families and the general public, with a total attendance estimated at 3,000. A year after Berklee’s end, we had started to form the young jazz community we longed to create.

2. How do schools get involved in the National Jazz Festival?

Schools, first and foremost, should register on our website! We offer these categories: Large Ensemble, Small Ensemble, Middle School, Vocal Group (divided into large vocal jazz ensemble, small vocal jazz ensemble, a cappella vocal jazz ensemble, pop-cappella), Vocal Soloist, Instrumental Soloist, Composition, and–our newest category that we are very proud of–SmartMusic! The schools can decide whether to be competitive or non-competitive; all will receive judges’ feedback. After they register, they can prepare their performances, participate in masterclasses, and explore all of our offerings. For instance, complimentary access to SmartMusic this year when a school signs up for the SmartMusic category. They could also nominate a student for the NJF LOVE Award and a teacher for the NJF Jazz Educator Award! Nominations can be submitted on our website or through the links.

3. What benefits  and growth opportunities does this festival offer students?

Our mission statement is to host an annual event that inspires middle and high school jazz musicians to take jazz to the next level through education, collaboration and celebration. Given the importance of education to our program, we include masterclasses, collegiate and professional performances, and provide adjudicators’ feedback on performances. These are direct ways to provide growth. Indirectly, we witness the benefits of young musicians watching other young jazz musicians strive and push to perform at their best. This interaction, in turn, motivates and inspires. And it works in the reverse! Preparing to play for the festival encourages the schools to have a goal and to aim at presenting a fine-tuned  performance. This collaboration blossoms into community. For these young musicians to find others with the shared passion for playing jazz is an all-important benefit. Our biggest focus is building this community.  

4. What does a “normal” year look like for the National Jazz Festival? How has the pandemic changed it this year?

We would usually be hosting an in-person event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia but, as everyone can tragically guess, we had to toss that out this year. However, we did not want the momentum that 2020 had granted us to be squandered in 2021, so we decided to move to a virtual format. Basically, our “virtual” year will look a lot like our “normal” year. Our in-person event begins at 8am when schools arrive and begin their performances. Throughout the day, masterclasses and collegiate performances are happening. Our vendors occupy the exhibitors hall and t-shirts are sold. Schools go out for lunch when they have breaks and return for more performances. The night ends with an award ceremony that is kicked off by a professional performer (last year, it was the U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors). This year will follow the same scheduling but it will premiere at set times on YouTube. The masterclasses will be conducted on Zoom and recorded for later placement on the NJF YouTube channel where they will remain in perpetuity.

There have been a few differences between our “normal” year and now. We have expanded our reach given that schools can participate without traveling.  We have also reduced the cost of registration due to the devastating toll that the pandemic has taken on the arts community. 

5. Tell us more about the SmartMusic component of the festival this year. 

Featured in the “SmartMusic Large Ensemble Category,” is Gordon Goodwin’s new tribute arrangement to Sammy Nestico called My Man Sam, inspired by his beloved mentor. This chart was written in the style of Sammy Nestico and the ranges are reasonable for high school ensembles and offers a great opportunity to expose students to both Gordon’s writing and Sammy’s style. Ensembles participating in this category will record My Man Sam as their submission. 

Participants in the “SmartMusic Small Ensemble Category” will record Gordon’s Little Phat Shuffle.

6. It must be pretty cool to have Gordon Goodwin as part of the festival this year! Tell us more about his involvement and his inspiration for his arrangement, My Man Sam.

Yes! It’s very cool to have Gordon involved! Gordon is well loved by the young jazz community! Having him in direct contact with our participants through his introductory video to ‘My Man Sam’, welcoming them to the National Jazz Festival, and bringing members of the Big Phat Band to hold master classes on the day of the festival is an honor and has created an air of excitement. Gordon’s inspiration came from Sammy Nestico’s long and vastly diverse body of work that has not just inspired Gordon, but jazz students around the world for many decades.  Sammy was an icon that had a direct impact on Gordon as a writer and arranger.  When Gordon knew Sammy was not well, he was inspired to write a piece in Sammy’s style to help continue Sammy’s legacy and to introduce Sammy’s style to today’s young jazz students. This is such an amazing opportunity for our participants and we are immensely grateful to SmartMusic and Gordon!

7. How can people support the National Jazz Festival?

People can get the word out about the NJF by following us on social media and by sharing information about our festival with others. Schools should register, of course! Also, people can donate through our website and/or reach out to us about volunteer opportunities. 

The NJF is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and is funded by donations, grants, advertising and sponsorships. We are all volunteers and need the support of the jazz community and music industry. Collaborating with companies, like SmartMusic, helps us not only to continue our in-person event but also shows their support for our mission to inspire the development of youth through music.  

The student musicians, the family that donates a small amount, the advertisers, universities–all are a part of our community. Our passion for jazz education drives us; come join us!

8. Where can people learn more? 


Thank you to Addie O’Beirne, Amanda Kewley, and Joe Bongiovi for their time and answers about this amazing event!

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